How to say no to things you don't want to do

It's time to set boundaries.

Amanda Capritto
6 min read
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I am a "yes" woman. I say yes to new career opportunities; to helping a friend move apartments; to listening to my sisters vent; to volunteer hours; to the extra project when I'm actually already in over my head. I say yes to parties, hikes, dinners and other get-togethers when, quite frankly, I don't have the time or energy to be there. 

Meanwhile at home, the laundry is left undone, the sink is full of dishes and my orange tabby cat is begging for attention. And no one is at fault except me. 

I think it really hit me when, just a few days ago, I mapped out my next few weeks of work, social events and family gatherings and felt stress tears well up, realizing that there was no foreseeable break. 

On a calendar, it might look like there are breaks: There are holiday parties, a Spartan Race with my gym friends, a trip to see my family for Christmas and other fun things leading up to the New Year. 

But the thing is, those sorts of events don't actually do anything to help me relax. Socializing is fun, but I'm mostly an introvert, so it definitely drains me (and then there's the hangover, if I decide to drink). The Spartan Race is sure to be a good time, but it's a physically demanding event. And of course, I'm thrilled to see my family for the holidays, but battling LAX and four hours on a plane won't do much for my stress levels. 

I promise I'm not here to complain about how busy I am --  I'm grateful for it all -- but I am here to tell you that you can (and definitely should) take breaks for the sake of your mental health. I'm here to tell you that if you're a yes-person like me, you should start practicing the art of saying "no." 

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Learning to say no can change your life

Holding onto a hero mentality ("I can do it all") for too long can seriously impact your mental health and quality of life. Taking on more than you can realistically achieve, particularly from clients or managers, will inevitably affect your quality of work. You may end up under-delivering, and then stressing about your workload and the possibility of under-delivering.

Bite off more than you can chew from friends and family, and you may end up straining your relationships. A person can only handle so much -- you don't want to over-promise and then snap when a friend or family member asks why you didn't deliver on a promise or why you failed to attend an event you said you'd be at. 

At work and at home, the inability to say no can result in lack of sleep, emotional distress and eventually burnout. It's not just about time, either: Saying yes to things that make you feel stressed, disconcerted or otherwise uncomfortable can take a toll on your mental and physical health.

On the flip side, learning when to say no helps you protect your mental and physical energy, as well as your time. When you say no to the things that don't serve you, you can prioritize your own wellbeing, get enough rest, spend time engaging with hobbies you enjoy and enjoy socializing when you go to events and gatherings you want to say yes to.

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Knowing when to say yes or no

It's really quite simple: Say yes to things that make you feel good and say no to things that don't. 

Most people today are severely overworked and overbooked, and can profoundly benefit from saying no to things that don't make them squeal with glee. Stripping your schedule of events (and even work projects, if possible) can help you reserve more energy for the important things. 

Here are some examples of when you might want to say yes, but should say no: 

  • Someone needs a shift picked up and while you could use the extra money, you've only averaged five hours of sleep each night for the last week. 
  • Your friends schedule a last-minute event that sounds fun, but tonight is your only night of the week to stay in. 
  • Your in-laws want to stay with you for 10 days over the holidays and you want to be nice, but the thought of cooking for, cleaning up after and entertaining anyone for 10 days ties your stomach in knots.
  • Your best friend asks for a favor but it would cut into the only time you carved out this week to hang with your kids. 

Of course, there are caveats. Realistically, you can't always say no to a work project that doesn't enthrall you, and sometimes you'll have to endure events you're not particularly keen on attending. But this is about exercising your right to say no often enough that these occasional happenings don't totally derail you.

You must also learn the difference between genuinely not wanting to do something because you know it won't serve you, and not wanting to do something because you're scared. It may be that you're afraid to do something that will produce positive results in your life. 

An example of the latter: You're an author. You don't want to say yes to a public speaking engagement because public speaking makes you feel queasy. But if you do say yes, it's possible that this public speaking engagement will land you a new deal, or at least a new connection. 

In the case above, you would benefit from saying yes even though your initial gut reaction was "No way!" In short, use your best judgement and aim for long-term benefits, rather than instant gratification. 

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How to say no 

Have you ever said yes to something and then lied your way out of it? Example: Your boss asks you to work an extra weekend shift and, not wanting to disappoint, you say yes on the spot, even though your stomach is twisting because you already have plans that day. Come the day of, you make up the best excuse you can think of to get out of the shift. 

No shame here -- nearly everyone I know, myself included, has done this in some form or another. It's an unfortunate tendency of people pleasers. But wouldn't it be so much easier to just say no on the spot? Of course it would, so here are some tips for doing just that. 

  • Be direct. This is often the best approach, even if it feels difficult. Just say, "No, I can't" or "No, I don't want to." 
  • Avoid apologies when they aren't warranted. You don't need to apologize for having made prior plans. 
  • Don't say you'll think about it when you know on the spot that you don't want to do it. Again, just be direct. 
  • If appropriate, give thanks. For instance, if someone offers you a work project: "Thanks for thinking of me for this project, but I don't have the bandwidth to take it on right now." 
  • Offer an explanation and alternatives if necessary. Backtrack to the example of family staying over for 10 days. Say, "I'd love to see you, but hosting family for that long is hard on my schedule. What if we helped you arrange a stay at a hotel just a few minutes from the house?"
A blank to-do list written on a notebook, which lies on a wooden table.

You have the power to fill in your to-do list with events, activities and projects that make you happy -- and to leave out the ones that don't.

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Saying no doesn't make you a bad person

People pleasers, perfectionists and yes people tend to feel like saying no makes them a bad person. They might fear that turning down work projects or declining event invitations makes them seem selfish or downright mean. 

Saying no doesn't make you any of those things. It only makes you protective of your time and energy, which is something we all deserve to be. If you're a yes-person because you believe saying no is selfish or wrong, it's time to let go of that belief. No isn't an off-limits word; it's something everyone can use at their own discretion. 

So starting now, I'm putting my foot down about saving my yeses for opportunities, events and happenings that make me want to jump up and down with happiness -- and the things that will produce a long-term benefit -- and whipping out the noes for ones that make me want to bite my fingernails. I hope you'll care to join me. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.